Sunday, March 2, 2008

A Skeptical Sort of Weekend

....and related themes like science and rationalism.

Zimmer Zinger

The fun actually started last Wednesday, when we got to see Carl Zimmer deliver Carleton U's annual Discovery Lecture. The talk was great, ranging over creationism, a crazy Aussie biologist who plays with some of the most venomous reptiles on earth, science tatoos, the new Encyclopedia of Life, and the joys of science journalism. The most memorable nugget was his account of the phylogeny of venomous reptiles and their diverse toxins, all acting in different ways. It turns out that the genes that make them are each coopted from some other gene that produces a product used elsewhere in the body; eg. cytotoxic venom from a digestive enzyme and things like that. To top it off: afterwards we got Carl to sign our newly-purchased copies of Soul Made Flesh and At the Water's Edge. The only sour note was when the faculty person introducing Zimmer made some remark implying that us over-30's aren't hip to Web 2.0 stuff like blogs. Hrumph.

It occurred to me that I missed my calling: being a science writer would be the perfect career for a dilletante like me. The only problem is that I don't think I'm a good enough writer to sustain a marketable level of prose for a few decades (or even a few hours). Well, maybe when I retire.....

Freaky Friday

Friday night was the HAO meeting, this month being held jointly with the Carleton Secular Alliance and the newly-formed University of Ottawa Skeptics. In celebration of Darwin Day, the theme was evolution vs. creationism. Gilles Messier lead off with a brief presentation on evolution, followed by three "creationists" -- actually Xander Miller, Chuck O'Dale and Your Humble Narrator presenting real creationist arguments. I think Xander's presentation was best, as he rattled off a string of Hovindisms like a genuine charlatan. My own spiel felt a bit disorganized -- I just find it damnably difficult to take a mass of irrational bullshit and compose it into a coherent, connected narrative.

After the presentations the audience had a chance to shoot us down, with prizes for the best and worst refutations. The "good" prizes were books about evolution, of course. The booby prize (awarded to a guy who -- tongue-in-cheek -- just called us idiots) was a Bible.

Perpetual Saturday

Saturday morning found six of us from the Ottawa Skeptics back at the U of O (where at least, I now know where to find parking) for a demonstration of Thane Hein's Perepiteia generator -- rumoured (though denied by its inventor) to be a Perpetual Motion Machine. Theo and I will be writing a longer report for the Skeptics site later, so for now I'll provide just a brief summary of my impressions:
  • We did witness the motor acceleration as claimed, together with a reduction in input power.
  • He denied that he was building a PMM -- but continued to insist that it violated energy conservation, apparently unaware that that is practically the definition of one type of PMM. He also talked a lot about "violating Lenz's Law", and "regenerative acceleration" (by analogy to regenerative braking used by electric vehicles), and how it "takes energy to stop a car" (no it doesn't: you have to make the kinetic energy possessed by the car go somewhere else).
  • Between the above and other pieces of the conversation, I take Thane to be sincere -- but very, very confused. He really doesn't seem to understand the terminology he tosses around.
  • My undergrad degree is in electrical engineering, but I took no more than the basic rotating machinery courses -- and that knowledge now has three decades of rust accumulation. Thus I really can't speculate what causes the effect he is seeing, without a bit of remedial study (OK: I can speculate -- but nothing I want to trot out in public just yet).
  • However, the attention this is apparently getting from serious academics suggests Thane may have stumbled on something interesting -- a method of increasing induction motor efficiency, or creating a novel speed-torque characteristic -- but I flatly don't believe he's doing anything that would re-write all of modern physics.
Sunday Skeptics

Today was the monthly meeting of the Ottawa Skeptics, held at our house. I only mention it to point out how much time we spent on this kind of activity (and with a bunch of the same people) this last week. Other than discussing Saturday's demo, the only occurrence of interest was that Lieutenant Kizhe bit our new member. Stupid cat.

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